On top of recent encouraging performances on the field from a variety of Scottish age groups, the performance director delivered news that could only help hearten many of those in attendance at Hampden yesterday.
Karamoko Dembele, Mackay reported, is “desperate” to play for Scotland in the upcoming Victory Shield tournament. In addition, Oli Burke, Scotland’s most expensive ever player, is settled at RB Leipzig, helped by his family having moved out to join him in Germany, and hopes to make his Champions League debut next month.
Both players managed to get where they are by developing outwith the SFA’s auspices – Dembele attended Celtic’s own performance school at St Ninian’s in Kirkintilloch, while Burke, pictured, grew up in England.
But they bear testimony to what can be achieved – though in the case of both there’s much work still to be done.
Dembele is only 14 but is already caught up in a so-called tug-of-war between Scotland and England, for whose Under-15s he has also played. But he was back in a dark blue jersey last month while helping Scotland Under-16s to a victory in a tournament made up by Uruguay, Qatar – and England. He was also involved when Scotland Under-16s triumphed in a Uefa mini tournament at Oriam in February, against strong opposition in Croatia, Austria and Iceland.
Mackay rates it as the first time in his lifetime that a Scotland side could be said to have been technically superior to one from Croatia.
Dembele was one of those who helped him reach that conclusion.
“I spoke to his dad earlier this month and Karamoko is desperate to play for us in the Victory Shield in Northern Ireland,” said Mackay.
“I’m also not naive,” he added. “Until a player sticks on a Scotland jersey and plays in a European Championships qualifier or a World Cup qualifier, then they can play for another country. In the last year I’ve spoken to a player who was called the night before he was due to play for Scotland by an agent and asked to change nation.”
Asked if Dembele feels more Scottish than anything else at this moment in time, Mackay replied: “It’s not a question I’m going to ask him at this point. He’s a young 14-year-old boy. I’m not going to start asking him questions about what he feels.
“His father is from the Ivory Coast, he’s worked and lived in both Scotland and England,” he added. “What do any of us feel at that point? Do you feel happy? That’s something I would suggest asking.
“As far as any of our youngsters are concerned, I’m going to give them the best chance, the best pathway, if they want to come with us.”
Mackay has recently returned from a trip to Austria to watch Red Bull Leipzig at their pre-season camp after being invited by sporting director Ralph Rangnick. He took the opportunity to spend time with Burke.
“I had a couple of hours with him,” he said. “We built up quite a good rapport over in Toulon [where Burke recently skippered Scotland’s Under-21s]. He cut short a holiday to come to Toulon when he could easily have said he wasn’t doing it after the disappointment of not making the main squad. I went over and talked to him about his mind set. His mum, [step] dad and sister and girlfriend have moved out to Leipzig in the last few months as well, which has made a difference.”
Burke led Scotland to victory over Brazil in France earlier this summer – the first competitive win by a Scottish team of any age group against these particular opponents. This was en route to the semi-finals of a competition Scotland had been absent from for 20 years.
Meanwhile, a first-ever win over Spain for the Scottish women’s side in the recent European Championships in the Netherlands saw Scotland fall just a goal short of qualifying for the last eight.
Mackay stressed there is much to be positive about. Further cheer has arrived in the shape of a three-year sponsorship deal with JD Sports, who have become title sponsors of the performance school programme, with another 48 pupils inducted yesterday.
But while the fun they would have was underlined to them – as Hearts player and graduate Harry Cochrane said, “it doesn’t feel like school at all” – they were also reminded that only hard work would give them a chance to excel.
Mackay asked them to reflect upon Ronaldo from the previous evening’s El Clasico. Ignore the red card he later received, he said – “that wasn’t such a good example” – but note the physique the player unveiled when tearing off his shirt en route to his first booking, and after putting Real Madrid ahead against Barcelona in their Spanish Super Cup encounter.
Now that the technical side of the game is being addressed, Mackay wants to improve physical conditioning. While he realises he can’t make them taller, Mackay and his staff can help players make the best of themselves. Even now, he says, 16-year-olds from places like Hungary and Iceland still look physically superior to Scots.
Mackay has recruited the services of five universities to supplement the SFA’s knowledge of nutrition.
“We’re not going to be able to put players on a rack and stretch them, but we can make them physically stronger, make them quicker,” he said.
“That’s why I’m asking universities to come in and help along with our sports science department.
“All these wee boys are getting drip fed information about what they should eat. Eventually, in a few years, it will become natural.”